The first time I realized my boobs bore some significance was in the fourth grade when my mother had me pick out my first white cotton training bra. I was terribly embarrassed while we checked out at JC Penney. I think I may have been in tears. Worst of all, it was a man who checked us out. I couldn’t even look at him.
I felt extra ridiculous when my mom then insisted that I start wearing it to school. I felt like it drew attention to me. And so, promptly after I got to class, I would step into the bathroom, tear it off, and stuff it into my backpack to be put on again before I walked home for the day. There was simply no way I would be wearing a bra. It was itchy and uncomfortable and besides, I was a free spirit.
Eventually, of course, I did wear bras regularly. Once I moved into the A-cups, I knew things were getting serious and I was getting boobs. By that time I was conscious of the necessity of the bra and by B-cup I was conscious of the necessity of a “cute” bra.
I guess around then I realized that boobs did actually have a function, and that function was to be sexy. God, I wish 13 year old girls didn’t know that.
That was my perception of breasts pretty much until I became pregnant. They were sex objects and not much more. Even as a 20 something year old, I giggled at the sight of women openly breastfeeding in Uganda. I understood the need to feed a child, but in public? Seriously?
But like any pregnant, soon-to-be-mom, I had to start planning out what kind of parent I wanted to be, and one question I had to answer was “bottle or breast”? I decided pretty early on that I was going to breastfeed and adopted the phrase “breast is best” into my vocabulary of cliches.
During the 5th month I started asking about breastfeeding. Honestly, I felt awkward even saying the word. Breastfeeding. Feeding from my breast. It was weird to think about. I knew I wanted to do it, but I felt a little conflicted. I felt like my breasts were being repurposed, and not necessarily in a positive way. I felt like a cow.
The 6th month I went to a La Leche League meeting and, being the only non-breastfeeding woman in the room, was lucky enough to have the limelight and ask whatever questions I had about breastfeeding. The women there referred to it as “nursing”, a term I did not at the time use. Nurses nursed, not breastfeeding mothers. Each of the women there breastfed their child at some point during the conversation. I saw someones nipple on accident and felt dreadful about it. That was not mine to see. Despite the nip-slip, the meeting was encouraging and I had resolved that I was for sure going to breastfeed.
Sometime during the 7th month I saw my first sign of breastmilk. A little drop of colostrum – liquid gold. I was excited to see that things were moving along like they were supposed to. The 8th and 9th month were much of the same. Colostrum here and there.
And then Noah was born.
I was wearing a bra, but it wasn’t sexy.
The midwife had to remind me to try to breastfeed him about 20 minutes after he was born. I was so wrapped up in him being new that I forgot he might be hungry. And so, with my husbands help, I went about nursing him for the first time. He did great. I don’t remember if I did or not.
What I do remember is the next few weeks. He nursed a lot. Like every hour or two, sometimes for half an hour or more. My milk came in with a fury after two days. My sister told me I looked like a porn star. Ironically, the sexiest my boobs have ever been was also the one time I definitely did not feel sexy. They were sore and a source of frustration. Noah had a hard time latching when they were so engorged and I was uncertain about how to help him.
We figured it out eventually, but I can see why some women make the move to formula. Breastfeeding is hard early on. It takes getting used to. Not only did it come with some discomfort, but at times I couldn’t tell where I ended and my son began. It seemed like he was always attached to me and always would be. I felt fairly touched out in the early months, being unused to so much physical contact.
But we stuck it out. I was encouraged early on by his weight gain, and then later by the fact that breastfeeding was a quick fix for any problem (and still is). I guess thats when I started understanding the “nursing” terminology. Like a nurse, I healed, comforted, and cared for my child.
What I didn’t care about anymore was how sexy my breasts were. In fact, I found it mildly appalling that I ever thought about them that way at all. These were tools by which I nurtured my child, not objects to cause arousal.
I don’t know how or why breasts became so sexualized. To clarify, I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I’m at the point now where I recognize and respect their dual function. That being said, I think there is something intrinsically wrong with a 13 year old girl recognizing breasts as a source of sexuality but not as a source of nutrition and life.
Physically speaking, breasts are solely designed to feed a child. If someone finds the sight of a breast being put to use offensive, then I feel sorry for them. There is nothing more beautiful to a mother than her nursing relationship with her child. In all of the activity of raising a baby, those moments of nursing are where we find peace. It is our chance to recenter. It is physically and emotionally beneficial to us both.
These days, when I see a woman nursing her child, it takes all my effort not to run over to her and congratulate her. But I do smile. I smile because I know she might feel awkward. She might feel judged. She might be afraid of the God-forbidden (and inevitable) nip-slip. She might be wrestling with a nursing cover that her baby simply won’t stand for. And though she certainly is not trying to be sexy, she knows that some of us can‘t help but make that association.
So, if you’re reading this, I guess I’d just ask that you respect a woman who chooses to nurse her child. Defend her, even. If it makes you uncomfortable, look away. But don’t take that relationship away from her. Breasts are sexy and beautiful, but they are also so much more.